Though it seems all fashion designers are outliers in their own way, (Lee) Alexander McQueen was even an outlier amongst the outliers.
McQueen came from a fiercely working-class background and, though his interests lay primarily in outlandish women’s clothing, he himself could easily have been mistaken for a football hooligan. McQueen’s shows were outlandish, provocative affairs, elaborate productions that not only redefined what was acceptable in the fashion world but also made him a divisive yet much admired figure.
Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary McQueen chronicles the life and times of the iconoclastic designer from his early days as a tailor’s apprentice to his tragic suicide in 2010. Watching the film, it seems like the filmmakers had access to a seemingly endless bounty of footage — not only from McQueen’s varied media appearances but also from his own home video footage.
“I think maybe we managed to make it look like we had everything covered, but it wasn’t that easy, either,” says Bonhôte. “Lee wasn’t that prone to letting people film him. Obviously we had a huge amount of sources for the footage in the film — well over 150 — but I would say it’s in the way that the edit and the music and so on drive the story that creates that effect. It’s also that we weave personal footage with more documentary archives, news archives and footage from the shows themselves. I don’t know if Peter would agree with me, but I don’t think we had more access than we needed. We had the story, and the story led to the archives, but other times we would find something amazing in the archives that would reverse the process and make us use the archives to drive the story.”
The film presents an interesting contrast between the extremely elaborate and cinematic feeling of the fashion shows with the rudimentary, sometimes unwatchable home video footage of McQueen and his friends horsing around on holiday.
“Yeah, they were playing with these new toys that they’d picked up in London’s Tottenham Court Road, where you buy electronics,” says Ettedgui. “They were just having a good time and messing around, without any attempt to actually document what they were doing. And that’s the joy of it, to us.”
“It really allowed us to have a patchwork of qualities and textures to make the story,” adds Bonhôte. “The qualities of the visuals are much worse at the beginning, and they get better by the end. It’s sort of the same with his work — the ideas might be there, but it gets more and more crafted.”
Another striking aspect of the film are the interstitials that separate the film’s “chapters,” elaborate 3D renderings of skulls in the style of McQueen’s more outlandish shows.
“We knew very early on that we wanted to tell the story of his life through his work,” says Ettedgui. “Lee always said, ‘If you want to know me, look at my work.’ We took him at his word, and we found five or six of these shows that felt like turning points in his life and his work. We thought we could build these chapters around them — we weren’t sure how we were going to mark them, but we knew we could have these ‘interstitials.’ We worked with this fantastic company called Time Based Arts, and they became passionate about using these chapter heading to reflect or anticipate the themes of each chapter. Even in printed form, the work they produced was amazing. The hair on the back of our necks stood up and we realized we could use them for more than just chapter headings — we could use them to define the theme of the chapter itself. And on top of that, Gary James McQueen — Lee’s nephew who is interviewed in the film — also created what would become our poster image. It was first conceived as a four-and-a-half foot image and then photographed by Dan Tobin-Smith. We realized during that process that we could work that material into the body of the film. It wasn’t that we started out with this as the idea of what we wanted to do — it started very organically.”
“We always wanted to make a cinematic documentary,” adds Bonhôte. “Sometimes, with all this archive footage and interviews, everything feels a bit 2D and flat. I think documentary storytelling can really fashion 3D characterization, but in terms of imagery, it’s a little harder. When you see them on the big screen, and it does feel cinematic. Time Based Arts worked on them like madmen!” ■
McQueen opens in theatres on Friday, July 20.